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February 1, 2023

Refuse To Retaliate

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.”
–Matthew 5:38

How should we deal with our enemies? Jesus said, first of all, we are to release our rights and not retaliate.

Some of our most cherished rights as American citizens are found in our judicial system. For example, if we are found guilty of a crime, there is a limit to the punishment that government can exact from us. This comes from one of the most basic laws in human history: the idea that the punishment should fit the crime. It is behind Jesus’s words in Matthew 5:38: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’”

Jesus was quoting Exodus 21:24, but the idea was not original to the Old Testament. Hundreds of years before the events of Exodus, the Code of Hammurabi included these laws: “If a man has caused the loss of a gentlemen’s eye, his eye one shall cause to be lost. If he has shattered a gentleman’s limb, one shall shatter his limb. . . . If he has made the tooth of a man that is his equal to fall out, one shall make his tooth fall out.” Moses cut to the chase and wrote, “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” If somebody wrongs us, there is a measured retaliation to be carried out by the legal system, the Old Testament said. And we have carried that idea into our legal system today. The Latin phrase is “lex talionis,” the law of retaliation.

My brother and I followed that code when we were growing up. He used to accidentally leave the door from my bedroom to our bathroom locked, so I would respond in kind. I did not murder my brother–that would have been excessive punishment–so instead I took a vile of stink perfume that I got from a magic shop and soaked his pillow in it. That is lex talionis.

Like my brother and me, the Pharisees applied the rule of lex talionis to personal relationships, where it did not belong. So in Matthew 5:39, Jesus continued, “I say to you, do not resist an evil person.” Not only are you not to engage in excessive retaliation, but you should not seek retaliation at all. Now, Jesus was not saying, “Do not defend yourself or others around you.” He was not saying, “If somebody drops a nuclear bomb on your nation, your government should just turn the other cheek.” Jesus was talking about personal relationships here. When somebody wrongs us, we ought to refuse to retaliate.


Today’s devotion is excerpted from “Straight Talk About Your Enemies” by Dr. Robert Jeffress, 2022.

Scripture quotations taken from the (NASB®) New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1971, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. All rights reserved.


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